What Are You Saying? 你讲什么? Ler Kong Si Mi?

When Minster for Education Heng Swee Keat said that school children will be burdened by dialects, I was incensed, enraged even, because what he said cannot be further from the truth. It is absolute bullshit. Firstly, Mr. Heng has misunderstood how children learn languages. Secondly, and indirectly, the stubborn insistence on keeping the ban on dialect media productions hints at a lingering lack of confidence in the almost four-decades-old bilingual policy. Third, saying that dialects clash with the bilingual policy reeks of complete contempt and disrespect for dialects.

Before I begin, I will say it openly that the issue of dialects is something that is very dear to my heart. That is why I am writing this piece to say what I feel and think about this emotive issue. Make no doubt about it – the issue of dialects is an emotional one. Also, I am very cognisant that I am writing a piece that concerns the Chinese community in Singapore. I ask your forgiveness for not focusing on a more wholesome picture.

Teochew Opera

Teochew Opera

I believe I can speak for many of us when I say that dialects are the emotional bonds linking many younger Singaporeans with their grandparents, and this is why these bonds are so precious and worth cherishing. It is precisely the same reason why we bemoan its slow and painful death as a part of Singapore’s colourful “folk culture” (if I may be so bold to use the phrase without getting lynched by sociologists). Why else would older Singaporeans occasionally mention that the use of dialects will pass on into history when younger Singaporeans don’t speak it, much less grow up in a family environment that speaks it from time to time?

Misunderstanding How Children Learn Languages

Children have a great propensity to learn languages before they turn 10 years old because their brains are like sponges – highly absorbent and malleable. They learn very quickly and they seldom forget. Furthermore, academics have pointed out that humans have great potential for learning languages, and that a linguistic environment will support language learning over time.

In my 23 years of life, never have I once felt that dialects were a burden. No. Never.  I grew up with my doting maternal grandparents who spoke Teochew. Naturally, my first language was Teochew, not English. I then mastered English and Chinese as I grew up, with a strong preference for the former which later became my dominant language. I struggled with Chinese, but with some effort, it is decent now. Along the way, I picked up Hokkien, which was easy because of its homophonic intonations. I spoke more Hokkien while in NS (bloody useful in establishing rapport with people). Over the book-out weekends, I picked up Cantonese while watching TVB dramas from Hong Kong.

In my first three semesters in university, I learnt German. Now, I’m dabbling with Bahasa Melayu. The point is simple, and I borrow from The Linguist:

“In fact it is motivation and attitude, not age, that determines our ability to learn languages. Most, if not all, polyglots, learn most of their languages as adults. Adults are often more inhibited or self-conscious, and have less opportunity, or are less willing, to socialize with people of another language group, whereas children just blend in to their new environment.The only thing that matters is that we can learn at any age. If we are 50 there is no point in wondering if we were able to learn better when we were 5. If you can motivate a child to learn a language when young, great. Otherwise it is never too late to start.”

So, the case is clear as to whether children can learn dialects or not. From the above, it does not matter when children learn dialects. Heck, you can learn it even beyond the optimum age and still grasp it so long as you have the verve for it. What cannot be tolerated is MOE’s dogmatic insistence that it is the final pedagogical authority on language learning. As a avid lover of languages, I cannot agree. Many young families with school-going children are mostly mono-lingual or bilingual (if they’re lucky). As such, the family environment already supports the mastery of two languages. Our celebrated public school systems provide yet another conducive environment for entrenching the use of two languages. As it is, there is already very little room for dialect. This brings me to my next point: why the fear about dialects?

Still ban dialects? Come on, 40 years with the Bilingual Policy already

Before I continue, I want to be clear: I am not calling for dialects to be instituted as curriculum. I don’t think there’s a need to. What I am saying is this, and I borrow a phrase from my lecturer, there is no need to get your panties tied into a knot whenever dialects are mentioned. By all means, continue with the bilingual policy. Singaporeans are sensible enough to see its merits, what with China and all the rest of it. But since the inception of the bilingual policy in 1972, we have come a long way.

I can understand if it was given as a rationale that we had to unify language learning back then for education’s sake. Lee Kuan Yew went as far as to ban dialect media. All that took place 40 years ago.

Those who know me would know that I have the deepest respect and admiration for our founding prime minister and all that he has done. However, when it comes to dialects, I would like to humbly disagree.

We are now in 2013 and are facing a loss of our heritage. Dialects are receding into memory, and so are the dialect operas. It’s a big problem because those are our real roots, not merely being Han Chinese. We are the descendants of dialect speaking immigrants. Our forebears spoke dialects and not Mandarin. So, my suggestion to the government is this: if it is genuinely concerned about rekindling in our hearts the connection with our ancestry, then let it be bold and lift the ban on dialect media before it becomes too late. Did the government not challenge its own paradigms last week with the announcement for free transport which this blog praised? It can be done.

After all, what has the government got to lose? As mentioned in the introduction, a decision to not lift the ban would hint at its insecurity towards the bilingual policy – that the ban must still be in place to support the learning of two languages because dialects are still an intrusion and that families do not have the requisite environment for learning, speaking, and mastering two languages. If MOE is still feeling insecure after 40 years, that’s just quite sad. Nothing else, just sad that MOE is not confident enough of its own policy.

No Clash Between Dialects and Bilingual Policy

The learning of dialects is not antagonistic to the bilingual policy. The two can coexist and it is not a zero-sum game – it has never been and it should not be. In fact, other than sharing the Chinese script, the two are worlds apart.

Dialects, in their spoken and written form, differ greatly from the Chinese script. The syntax and words are totally different for the same expression. Take “woman” for example. In Chinese, we know it to be 女人. It’s the same for Cantonese (loei yan). But for Teochew and Hokkien, it’s different – 查某 (zha bou/zha bor respectively). The differences are clear. Not only will learners see that the words are different, the sounds are different. Well, I think there’s more to learn. Dialects make the language colourful. And Chinese dialects come from the main language, Mandarin. This makes them related, not separate from one another.

Final Thoughts?

I reiterate my displeasure at Minister Heng’s unfortunate misunderstanding of language learning and deplore the poor attitude taken to dialects. It’s hurtful, to say the least. I am not calling for dialects to be instituted as curricula but for the ban on dialect media to be lifted so that inter-cultural learning can be facilitated. There is nothing to be ashamed about dialects. It is about high time the ban got lifted because 40 years is more than enough for MOE to entrench the bilingual policy and have confidence in its own policy.

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No free transport, comprain. Got free transport, also comprain. Buay sian ah?

I read the ST Forum letters from time to time and I’ve found them to be insightful, mature, thought-provoking, and honest. Then there are the bad ones too. And this one was simply too repulsive for me to stomach it. It’s a classic case of “damned if you do, and damned if you don’t” for the Government. What I simply cannot take is the incessant whining about what is largely a positive move.

The announcement of free train rides trial programme came as welcome news early this week. It is a bold move, and pretty unconventional too. Let’s first deal with the criticism that free train rides will only ensure more overcrowding.

It is absolutely wrong to say that commuters who work in the heartlands and industrial areas “would be inconvenienced by the larger crowds during the early part of the morning”.

How so? The industrial areas in Tuas are so far away from City Hall and Raffles Place. How on earth would human traffic headed in both directions get caught and be inconvenienced? Granted, the dense concentration of human traffic might be at interchange stations. But once the train arrives, commuters headed for Tuas or City Hall would go in entirely opposite directions! Hence, I fail to see where the ‘inconvenience’ would stem from.

Even students are mentioned in the Forum Letter. Excuse me, but what has it got to do with students? Yes, the free trial won’t affect them since they are already benefiting from student concessions. The discussion of students in the entire free rides scheme is utterly and hopelessly irrelevant.

It is important at this point to reiterate that the free rides scheme is intended to spread out the human traffic. I think this graphic will help:

LTA Infographic

LTA Infographic (extracted from LTA’s Facebook Page)

Just look at the low human traffic exiting the 16 city centre stations on weekdays. This means that our trains can carry more people during this from 7 am to 7.45 am. In LTA’s own words:

LTA Quote

LTA Quote

By offering free travel, the Transport Ministry is trying to incentivise early rides. There is no guarantee that this will work, but there’s only a hope that it might. There are two issues that could possibly impede the success of this pilot programme: sleep and companies’ operating hours.

Sleep – yes, it is darn precious. Would you give up sleep for free transport? Personally, I might. What about you?

Operating hours: this is a tricky one. It is much harder to get employers on board, but in order for the free travel scheme to work more effectively, employers should take part as well by adjusting their operating hours to accommodate travel patterns. In fact, a ministry has taken the lead. Take a look:

LW Quote

From Acting MCCY Minister Lawrence Wong’s Facebook Page

And here’s my favourite: the taxpayer argument. The ST Forum Letter opines that “Even though the Government will pick up the tab for the trial, which is expected to cost $10 million, it should not be forgotten that this is actually taxpayers’ money. Therefore, I urge the ministry to reconsider this trial and come up with better solutions that would benefit all commuters.”

Yes, you may be a taxpayer but that doesn’t mean that you will get what you ask for all the time. Be reasonable. The commuters who work in the city areas are taxpayers too! Is it wrong for them to benefit from this? In fact, this scheme is a judicious use of tax monies precisely because it does not extend to all commuters for the entire pre-peak period. Only an irresponsible Government would have done that. By keeping the trial project to a small area, the Government is indicating that this trial could be expanded to other parts of our little island. Thus, this brave initiative of $10 million is likely to augur well for transport improvements in time to come if this trial is replicated in other areas.

Contrary to the implied notion that the $10 million trial is not one that benefits all commuters, I would argue that it does by virtue of alleviating congestion on trains. By doing so, the experience on public transport would be improved. So, to the author of the ST Forum Letter: just because you don’t benefit from it doesn’t mean that you are entitled to knock the proposal down. That’s plain selfishness.

Don’t get into university, blame government? Siao bo?

A Facebook post by “The Singaporean Times” (whatever that means) about a man having to sell his house to allow his daughter to study medicine overseas made its rounds last night. Drastic?

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The veracity of the story not withstanding (yes, such things can be easily fabricated), the daughter applied to the Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine at NUS with her ‘A’ level results of AAB (frankly, it’s a good set of results) but was unfortunately unsuccessful.

Now, does it come as a surprise that rejection took place?

Not at all.

Why? NUS Medicine is one of the most competitive faculties locally; it is elite, and many know that even a full bag of ‘A’s might not even secure you a place simply because there are limited vacancies. Thus, based on results alone, she does not make the cut. Furthermore, there’s no need to ask daddy to sell the house and go to Australia. Have you heard of the new medical school at NTU?

The point of this post is not to give alternative education recommendations (even though necessary). What lies at the heart of this (doubtful) post is a mentality of self-entitlement that is bubbling in Singapore with increasing effervescence. I think this is dangerous and entirely toxic because we place ourselves on a pedestal.

In the post, the man claimed that he did NS and now the Government is not taking care of him, or in this case, his daughter (“our own people”, he says). While NS gives you a good reason to claim something against the state, it is not a blank cheque with which you could do so. After all, to claim a 5 to 6 year medical education for your daughter after a 2.5 year stint in the SAF is simply striking an asymmetric bargain. So, no, NS does not give you the right to claim anything and everything from the state.

Another point of course deals with foreigners, the new F-word in town. The angry man assumed that her daughter’s “rightful” place at medical school was robbed by a foreigner. While it is true that NUS accept foreign students, there is a strict limit of 15% in place for all local varsities now, down from 18% (http://www.nie.edu.sg/newsroom/media-coverage/2012/lower-foreign-university-student-ratio-can-better-promote-exchanges-and-expand-contacts). Furthermore, the foreign student would have to meet the high standards set by the School. As such, to jump the gun and conclude that a foreigner has definitely robbed the vacancy is a conclusion that reeks of bullshit. Really, is the man so blinded by his anger to realise that a more competent and sterling Singaporean student could have gotten the coveted spot at Yong Loo Lin? Don’t just blame everything on foreigners; it shows how much responsibility you actually take for your own actions when you blame it on others (oh, how convenient).

I had an interesting discussion with my friend on this issue over Facebook last night. He suggested that the Government discriminates in favour of its own local students and lower the bar for admissions. Sounds sexy, right?

That’s the kind of self-entitlement I am talking about. It’s disgusting. Yes, being a citizen does come with its privileges but there is a line that ought to be drawn when it comes to admissions into university, especially if we are compromising standards. Lowering the bar for locals and setting a higher bar for foreigners is like smoking opium: you are deluding yourself and you will one day wake up to find yourself in deep shit.

Let me explain. Firstly, it is not even feasible. A limited number of vacancies will still allow natural selection to take place and the University will still have to pick from the crème de la crème. Secondly, even if it was possible (through sheer dumb luck), accepting more qualified foreign students to compete with our local students will inevitably place our local students at the bottom rung of rankings since you set the bar higher-than-usual for foreigners and lower-than-usual for locals. Our students will not benefit from this. What you are doing is deluding them into thinking that they “can make it” when they are really not up to the task. Should they languish in medical school as a result of this self-entitled mindset embedded in the policy, it will be ultimately cruel and Singapore as a whole will not be better for it because we might end up with lesser doctors than the cohort admitted. Hence, it is far better to compete on an even keel, not just for medicine, but for all faculties and courses of studies. Policies with a smack of self-entitlement are not only populist, they are foolish, inefficient and erode the meritocratic foundation in our society.

That said, I am not going to let the Government off that easily as well. The numbers and percentages of foreign students in our midst should be released and the policymakers should account for these statistics ie why they are the way they are. This is to aid public understanding and end this acrimonious and increasingly mind-numbing riposte against foreigners. Secondly, the Government should review its scholarship policy towards foreign students. While the need for them is understood, to give them free scholarships without bonds and without requiring them to pass a basic standard of English is unacceptable. The rationale is simple: you want to come to Singapore, you better know how to speak English because that’s our working language and that’s the medium of instruction. It’s as simple as that. And really, why bond-free? It’s inexcusable to give such scholarships to students who do not intend to contribute back to Singapore. After all, there’s no such thing as a free meal.

Before I conclude, I would like to borrow one of the many sensible comments that have ensued from this shit-stirring post: “The government is in no way obliged to give this girl a place in NUS. If you think that just because her father served NS, or because she is Singaporean she will get a spot, then we would be seeing >90% of applicants getting in. Secondly, you cannot expect the government to solve all your problems. Just because your daughter does not get into a university course she wants, you curse the government? Think about all the other applicants who didn’t get accepted as well, there are probably hundreds of other hopeful students who did not get an interview, and nobody is complaining about it.” (John Tan)

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My parting words? You want to stir shit but Singaporeans ain’t that dumb as to swallow your bullshit lock, stock, and barrel. Your actions, by masquerading to be pro-Singapore and pro-Singaporean, simply demean the essence and spirit of being Singaporean and make slogans like “Singapore for Singaporeans” ring even more hollow. Grow up. No one owes you a living.

Remembering Ong Teng Cheong: An Exemplar of Presidential Leadership

On 8 February 2013, some Singaporeans quietly marked the eleventh anniversary of the passing of the late Ong Teng Cheong, the first elected President of Singapore. I decided to write about the role of the elected president and relate it to the context of today’s Singapore, in the aftermath of the White Paper (yes, I’m not quite done with it yet). I thank Alfian Sa’at for his Facebook post which is the source of inspiration for this post. I may not agree with him on many issues, but on this one, we sing the same song.

In this post, I will first posit that the elected president can and should exercise his moral authority judiciously whenever the existing socio-political climate in Singapore warrants a stabilising intervention. Second, I will argue that the characteristics of closeness and sympathy made the late President Ong an exemplar of presidential leadership and this is what the current President, and indeed successive presidents, ought to exude.  Before the main exposition, a tribute to Mr. Ong is necessary.

Honoring the late President Ong

The late President Ong occupies a special place in their hearts of many Singaporeans for several reasons. He was a gentleman, kind, caring, and always looking out for those who were less-fortunate. He proved this in action as well: the annual President’s Star Charity is a legacy of Ong Teng Cheong, who first initiated it in the early years of his tenure.

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He was also known for being an active minister who dared to challenge the existing order by testing its boundaries and exercising his prerogatives both as a minister and a president. While in Cabinet, he sanctioned a strike in 1986 without informing his colleagues and erstwhile mentor, Lee Kuan Yew, earning him the ire of the then-Minister for Trade and Industry Dr. Tony Tan. As President, he granted a pardon for a death-row inmate, ordered for a report on Singapore’s reserves, and staunchly advocated the construction of the MRT.

Above all, Mr. Ong was remembered for being close to the people and a fatherly figure, always smiling. It is precisely because he had Singapore and Singaporeans at heart that he earned the respect and won the hearts of all who came to know him. In his own words:

“Some people still ask whether my long previous association with the PAP will stop me from acting independently. The answer is no. My loyalty is first and foremost, to the people of Singapore. It has always been so, and will always remain so.”

Not many can utter these words and put them into concrete action. Mr. Ong was one of the rare few who succeeded in matching words with actions.

The President, Moral Authority, and the White Paper

It is abundantly clear that the President of Singapore is an office that is non-partisan and above politics. I argue that precisely because the office of President is an elected one, it is one that is consequently vested with moral authority, and therefore, the angry and frustrating aftermath of the White Paper was a golden opportunity for President Tony Tan to exercise his moral authority and calm the public mood.

Some would first question if President Tony Tan can claim to have moral authority, given that he was voted into office with 35.20% of the ballot. Frankly, it is quite a stretch to say that he had it in the first few months of his tenure. Has President Tony Tan since cultivated his moral authority? That’s an open question.

Arguably, the White Paper (as I have mentioned in my earlier post) is an issue that transcends political stripes because of its massive importance and implications on the future. So, the question here is this: if the President had intervened to assuage public rage, would that have been deemed as wading onto the political scene? That is yet another open question.

Given how politicised (and divisive) the White Paper was, I would summarily conclude that the President would have entered a grey area if he had said something on the White Paper, because he would inevitably be forced to take a side by virtue of the words he chose.

In my view, the uproar over the passage of the White Paper by 77 ayes, 13 nays, and 1 abstention was justification enough for intervention. The purpose of intervention is not stake a political claim or to make a political statement. I see intervention as necessary to prevent the already-heated political climate from combusting into flames. Any statement made by the President would have to address all three actors in the political landscape: the Government, the Opposition, and the people. I believe the weight of the President’s words would have had a calming effect on public sentiment.

The President is supposed to be a unifying figure for all Singaporeans, regardless of political stripes. The visceral results of the White Paper have left Singapore sharply divided but the silver lining lay (and still lies) in the opportunity to unify and heal the rifts that have emerged in Singapore. Indeed, there has never been a more opportune time for unity in this country in recent years.

A President for the People

While heads of states are not deities or higher beings, the way citizens look to their heads of state as a beacon of hope, wisdom, and good counsel in times of trouble parallels how the devout would turn to their faith for strength and sustenance. No one can deny the significance and influence that heads of states, such as Queen Elizabeth II of England and King Bhumibol Adulyadej of Thailand, possess in their person and office. The same goes for President of Singapore. I reiterate: it is an office above political divisions and that is why it is an office of unity. Presidential leadership is therefore comprises the elements of unity and moral authority in the person of the president.

In this section, I bring in Dr. Tan Cheng Bock as a comparison to Mr. Ong Teng Cheong. Those familiar with the Presidential Elections of 2011 would know that the runner up, Dr. Tan Cheng Bock, lost by 0.34% (some 7,000 votes) to Dr. Tony Tan in a nail-biting vote count.

What, then, explains the election results? Why was the race so close?

Without going into a thesis-length explanation, I would attribute Dr. Tan Cheng Bock’s appeal to his to personal magnetism, his charisma, and his willingness to stand up for the people according to his conscience. This independent streak was made known when he voted against party lines in the 1980s. Additionally, Dr. Tan Cheng Bock had developed a very strong following in the south-western parts of Singapore because that is where his old fort of Ayer Rajah is located. His old constituents remember him fondly and trusted him, having constantly returned him as the MP for the constituency with vote shares between 70% and 88%.

Here, we find that Dr. Tan Cheng Bock’s track record and personal traits do not differ much from the late Ong Teng Cheong. They both stood up to the party that they were in. They spoke their minds with the interests of the people at heart. Thus, the similarity between Dr. Tan Cheng Bock and Mr. Ong Teng Cheong lies in their courage and willingness to act on their own consciences in the interests of the people, and it is precisely these traits that endear them in the hearts of the people. The electorate wants a President who will safeguard and guarantee the interests of Singapore and Singaporeans, and a President whom they trust wholeheartedly and can rely upon for moral and, indeed, presidential leadership.

Parting Thoughts

I should state in closing that I supported Dr. Tony Tan in the presidential elections only because he proved to be able to represent Singapore at the international level, given his experience as a minister who has travelled abroad. I should also state that I have nothing against Dr. Tan Cheng Bock and I am confident he can discharge the guardian role of the office with distinction, but it is Dr. Tony Tan’s proven international credentials that made him the candidate of choice for me. As for the others, let’s not even mention them.

My personal views aside, what matters here is this: the socio-political climate in Singapore can only become more tense as her people, aided by social media, become more vocal and assertive by challenging the existing social order and desiring more alternative voices in Parliament (if the results of Punggol East are anything to go by). As a result, there is likely to be more friction in society which in turn gives rise to opportunities for the President to exercise his moral authority. After all, a silent president will surely leave behind a muted legacy. It can be said that the late Mr. Ong set very high standards for presidential leadership for his successors. While it is unfair to expect President Tan and other future presidents to be like the late Mr. Ong, I sincerely hope that President Tan and his successors will, in their own ways, leave behind a fruitful and meaningful legacy for Singapore.